Send in the drones

Everywhere you look these days, you see stories about machines taking over jobs that regular people used to have. In factories, big robot arms are elbowing aside real working Joes by the score. Deliveries are soon going to be made by flying bots. Cars are parking themselves, and maybe even driving themselves. The machines are coming, and if you have a job, they’re coming for yours.

The big obsession right now is, of course, drones. All across the country, people are literally freaking out. Even though I’ll bet a hundred bucks you haven’t seen one in person, I guarantee you that people you know are looking over their shoulders right now, sure that a drone is going to sneak up on them and steal their life, liberty or property. There’s almost a drone story a day. Last month, a rogue drone slipped over the fence and onto the White House grounds, proving that even flesh and blood nutjobs are being displaced by machines.

I’m not one of those tinfoil-hat types who worries about Uncle Sam following me from the air. The government these days can barely do the things it is supposed to do, let alone master the technology necessary to do the things you don’t want it to do. Call the IRS help line and see how long you end up on hold. … There’s nobody there.

No, I worry because these are machines, and machines break down — all the time. This morning at work, the escalator was stopped dead, and when I went to take the elevator, the little light told me at the car was on my floor, but the door never opened. If we can’t get simple machines that carry us upstairs to work properly, do you really think we ought to be messing with stuff that could kill us?

Drones are essentially little helicopters that fly themselves. Helicopters, no matter what size, have sharp spinning blades on them. All it takes is one small malfunction, and that drone that was supposed to hand you your Amazon order could cut your head off. Growing up, I hardly ever worried that about getting decapitated by the milkman.

Likewise, I don’t want a car that might decide, all by itself, that we’re about to hit something and throw on the brakes. I trust my own eyes a lot more than my on-board computer. My Mazda right now is telling me that I have to check the air in my tires even though I know they’re fine. My wife’s car has had the “check engine” light on for three months and nobody knows why. I would be extremely upset if I went through my windshield because my car mistook a mosquito on the sensor window for a deer.

And as I write this, they’re testing driverless cars, hoping to get them on the highways before you know what hit you. Ironically, if they get their way, the next thing to hit you probably will be … a driverless car. The only thing worse than a car that can stop by itself is one that can go wherever it wants. There’s a huge difference between California, Pa., and California USA. I know that, but I’m not sure that my car’s onboard computer knows that. I don’t want to look up from my iPad in the back seat to see we’re halfway through Ohio.

The machines are everywhere. When you fly in an airplane, the pilot is more likely to be up in the cockpit trimming his fingernails than doing any real flying. The computer is in charge. All’s well until the computer gets a glitch, and somebody who’s only flown so far on a simulator has to take the yoke of an actual airplane. If that happens, you might want to scribble a note to loved ones on your cocktail napkin and stuff it in your pocket, then stick your head between your knees.

I have no problem using technology to do things nobody cares about, such as writing this column on a computer. But when it counts, when lives are on the line, I’d prefer to rely on actual flesh-and-blood human beings over silicon-and-steel machines. I’m worried that someday, I’ll be stuck inside my house, scared to death that some malfunctioning drone will either hit me in the forehead or some driverless car will come careening across my lawn, flattening me like a pancake.

Then some robot-driven ambulance will come and rush me to the ER, where a computerized mechanical doctor will assume I’m a robot, too, that I’m just experiencing a malfunction, and I’ll try to pull his plug before he pulls mine.

I just hope it’s not too uncomfortable when they insert the AA batteries.

 

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